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Arts on ventilator

One year after the pandemic, India’s ‘culture sector’ is in dire need of funds. This time the funds required are not just for patronage but for survival and livelihood. Remember, it’s always the artists and performers who are sought to help out by way of raising charity funds for a plethora of causes. Be it for victims of disaster, illness or terror. And they do so promptly and dutifully. The most recent was for the PM Cares Fund on Covid19 in April 2020. It was called the ‘Sangeet Setu’ and it had performances by some of the leading lights of the Indian music scene.

But who will help the artists in their hour of need? In India, ‘culture’ goes beyond just the film industry. The culture sector includes classical dancers and musicians, singers from folk, theatre performers, visual artists, photographers, writers, handicrafts, etc. They are India’s soft power that holds sway over wide swathe of people across the world. The pandemic has forced the closure of museums and art centres followed by cancellation of major festivals. And yet, the Modi Government has so far not formulated any ‘Covid Culture Fund’. The existing National Culture Fund has not addressed the issue of artists suffering due to the
Covid19 crisis. The harsh irony being, Government’s budget for art and culture was slashed by 21 per cent in its mid-year revision in 2020.

In stark contrast, United Kingdom’s Cultural Recovery Fund of £1.57 billion announced last year to support the country’s distressed arts sector has already gone into its second phase of distribution. The French Government’s € 2 billion Culture Fund has special unemployment benefits for actors, performers and musicians who have been put out of work by the pandemic. As much as 40 per cent of USA’s American Rescue Plan is meant for state and regional arts agencies. Germany announced its biggest cultural subsidy programme since end of the Second World War—€ 2.5 billion package to help the culture industry get back on its feet.
It requires a sensitive and culturally-engaged Government to provide this financial support. It is our governmental apathy that has put arts and culture in India on ventilator today.

Ghazal maestro and composer Sudeep Banerjee has seen this first-hand as he told me in an interview recently: “I usually work from home. But not being able to do concerts was very tough. A lot of musicians I know from Kolkata started selling vegetable and fish in the market. That’s how bad it’s been. Even when auditoriums were briefly opened up in Mumbai after the 1st Covid wave, we were charged the full amount for booking space despite the limit of 50% seating capacity. This is a huge struggle that will turn away youngsters from entering the arts.”

Kathak exponent Vidha Lal too has a similar story. Because of a lack of opportunities she has now gone fulltime into teaching and is trying to bring out a line of customized light-weight jewelry for stage dancers. “I have chosen to contribute to the arts and take Kathak forward but there are daily challenges. Today, it’s difficult to even sustain online students. At least the Government should open some auditoriums to help us record our performances. It has become a fight for survival. There are many Government platforms but they need to give us concerts. We are relearning new ways but we need help.”

That may be the story of performance artists, things are not too different for other behind-the-scenes artists either. For someone who was used to travelling four times in a month for shoot assignments, ace fashion photographer Ashish Chawla barely managed five trips last year. He had to keep his shoots limited and indoors, suffering losses he hadn’t experienced in years. “After the lockdown, there was some work lined up which kept me afloat and I didn’t need to fire my staff. But I have apprentices; I train the younger lot in photography. Since the economy is bad, our client base has disappeared. It will be difficult to retain the young in the creative field. We’re not acknowledged for our work and contribution to culture. This should be a wake-up call for the Government.”



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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